Stephen Groves and Darlene Superville
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. — President Donald Trump gave a fiery speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday night, saying that protesters have waged "a merciless campaign to wipe out our history" amid demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality.
The sharp rebuke in a holiday address to mark the nation's independence follows weeks of protests across the nation, sparked by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Some demonstrators have also destroyed or damaged Confederate monuments and statues honoring those who have benefited from slavery.
"This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore," Trump said. Some on the political left hope to "defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children."
Trump dismissed the protests. "Their goal is not a better America. Their goal is to end America," he said. He described protestors as "evil people."
The event drew thousands of spectators, most of them without masks, even as coronavirus cases spike across the country. The president was set to speak before a big fireworks show, the first to be held at the site in over a decade.
Trump called for a national park of statues to greatest Americans.
Related story: Treaty defenders block road leading to Mount Rushmore
Trump was expecting a South Dakota show of support, with the state Republican Party selling T-shirts that feature Trump on the memorial alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But concern about the coronavirus risk and wildfire danger from the fireworks, along with the Native American groups' protests were also present.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, had said social distancing won't be required during the event and masks will be optional. Event organizers were to provide masks to anyone who wanted them and planned to screen attendees for symptoms of COVID-19.
Noem said Trump opponents “are trying to wipe away the lessons of history. Make no mistake: This is being done deliberately to discredit America’s founding principles by discrediting the individuals who formed them,” she said.
Noem and Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, were among the crowd meeting the president and first lady Melania Trump at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Noem wasn't wearing a mask; Thune removed his face covering as he waited to greet the president.
The Republican mayor of the largest city near the monument, Rapid City, said he would be watching for an increase in cases after the event, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Enthusiastic attendees were unlikely to disqualify themselves "because they developed a cough the day of or the day before," Mayor Steve Allender said.
The small town of Keystone, which lies a couple of miles from the monument, was buzzing with people Friday hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireworks and the president. Many wore pro-Trump T-shirts and hats. Few wore masks.
"This is going to rank up in the top Fourth of Julys that I talk about," said Mike Stewhr, who brought his family from Nebraska.
Mike Harris of Rapid City, who said he was a Republican, wore a mask and waved an anti-Trump flag. He also was sporting a handgun on each hip. He said he was worried the event would spark a COVID-19 outbreak.
"I think it's a bad example being set by our president and our governor," Harris said.
Robin Pladsen, director of the Keystone Chamber of Commerce, handed out face masks and hand sanitizer from a tent. She said the tourist influx would help businesses pay back loans they had taken out to survive the economic downtown but acknowledged the health risk for the town.
Leaders of several Native American tribes in the region also raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among their members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an underfunded health care system and chronic health conditions.
"The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo op at one of our most sacred sites," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Several people who once oversaw fire danger at the national memorial have said setting off fireworks over the forest was a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risks.
Noem pushed to get the fireworks resumed soon after she was elected, and enlisted Trump's help. The president brushed aside fire concerns earlier this year, saying, "What can burn? It's stone."
Trump made no mention of the fire danger Thursday.
"They used to do it many years ago, and for some reason they were unable or unallowed to do it," he said. "They just weren't allowed to do it, and I opened it up and we're going to have a tremendous July 3 and then we're coming back here, celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C."
Trump has presided over a several large-crowd events — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and at an Arizona megachurch — even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing. He plans a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall in Washington despite health concerns from D.C.'s mayor. Trump and Melania Trump plan to host events from the White House South Lawn and from the Ellipse.